‘We Are Citizens of Russia and Responsible for What Our Leadership Does, Whether You Like it or Not’
July 18, 2023
  • Svetlana Gannushkina

    Head  and Founder of the Civic Assistance Committee
  • Olga Proskurnina
Svetlana Gannushkina talks about how Russian volunteers are helping Ukrainians who ended up in Russia, about the way Ukrainian refugees are treated by the Russian government and the government’s overall refugee policy.
The original text in Russian was published in Republic. A shortened version is republished here with their permission

How do you see the attitude of Russians toward Ukrainian refugees? Has it changed as the war has progressed?

We’ve been working with refugees for 33 years. Usually there is a certain circle of people who sympathize with them, understand them – but in general, nowhere do people like foreigners. I asked in Germany, for example, how NGOs are funded there (nongovernmental organizations, in this case, helping refugees – Republic). It turns out that 80%, almost 90% of them are financed by the state. Crowdfunding is very limited. Precisely because it is foreigners. It is good to give money to sick children, to the disabled, to your own old people. And we have often received such comments from our bureaucrats: “Why are you working with these people? Do we not have our own old people, our own patients? What do you care about them?”
Civic Assistance Committee, founded in 1990, helps migrants and refugees. Many of its employees are also migrants. Source: Wiki Source
Before the Ukraine events began, we collected very small amounts. Five hundred thousand rubles maybe a year is definitely not enough. When the first flow of Ukrainian refugees began [from 2014], donations tripled. And since February 24 [2022], receipts have increased twentyfold. And we immediately collected not RUB 500,000, not RUB 1.5 million, as after the Donbas events, but RUB 30 million.

I never thought that we do not have any civil society. There are many of us, we are different, but we know how to cooperate and understand each other.
After February 24, huge volunteer aid groups sprang up for Ukrainian refugees.
They institutionalized very quickly, and without officially registering in any way: they set up automated support, where a person can call, a bot talks to him, asks him the necessary questions, and then they call him back. We work with some of these groups, but they do their thing without us. And they were so well organized! In addition, the leaders of these groups were never activists.

We are working with a group that helps Ukrainians leave Russia via Moscow and St Petersburg and also helps people right on the spot. We had a girl who wanted to leave Russia. She was not 18 years old, [so] she could not make the decision – her brother had put her on a bus [to Russia]. But she decided to go back. She lived five months in Russia until she turned 18; we helped her with the passport and she left within two days. But there was someone to support her.

The same thing happened with an elderly lady. Her son and daughter-in-law had died, and she was left with a one-and-a-half-year-old grandson and another son of hers, who was disabled. This family ended up with acquaintances in Germany within a few days, as the volunteer groups are connected with volunteers in Poland, Germany, etc. It’s very inspiring, I must say.

People offer us all sorts of help. Though currently the bank has turned us away and the platform where we collected money has too – well, this is because the state is pressuring them. Now, since that platform refused to work with us, people simply bring cash or make one-time transfers, for example, of RUB 30,000. Those who gave a little each time now give a lot at once.

In fact, society is effectively helping Ukrainian refugees. There have been only a few cases when out of nowhere some psychopath, seeing Ukrainian license plates, messes up the car. A young man came to our address, where we used to rent a space, and said: “Who are you helping here? Ukrainians are coming here. It is probably some terrorists, fascists!” We called him over, showed him the requests that people write to us – mothers with children, civilians. When he saw that they were from Donetsk and Luhansk (not only from there, of course), he said that he would donate. There were several such cases when upset people came by and then promised to make donations. None of them did, by the way. But they calmed down.

It has been almost a year and a half that the war has been going on. Has the flow of refugees from Ukraine to Russia decreased? Or are people still coming?

The flow continues, but, of course, it has fallen off. There were just huge waves when we took in refugees from morning till night and tried to somehow divide them up by days, but this did not work, and crowds stood in lines on the street. Now there is no such thing. But people come to us a second, a third time – obviously, not everyone can get settled. Still, the Russian state helps these people more than other refugees.
As of end-2022, 65,000 people received temporary asylum in Russia, of which 60,500 were citizens of Ukraine.
This is just what was left – in fact, there was a time when there were up to 500,000 people with that status, and generally they received Russian citizenship. And it has always been and still is surprising that so many people want to link their fate with Russia. It’s really a very unusual situation.

How do you explain it?

First of all, our propaganda is very effective not on us, but on the outside world. It turned out that people who do not see our life, but only watch TV, perceive everything [they watch] as the truth: “You have stability! You have a president who cares about the people!” What does he care about the people? He made the war. Still, there is much such reasoning.

To discuss this topic further, I would like to be together with my Ukrainian colleague, because otherwise I cannot criticize Ukraine. But you have to look for the roots there too. I can only say that I still do not understand it, although many times they tried to explain it to me, why in a country where everyone speaks Russian, it was impossible to make Russian the second state language. This was a big factor for many.

In Ukraine in Soviet times, Ukrainian was taught as a compulsory subject. I was born in Kryvyi Rih – the Russian-speaking southeast – during my school years, I sometimes went on summer holiday before the end of the school year, and I went to school with my sister for Ukrainian lessons.

And Russian was always there.

And Russian, of course. However, this is not for us to judge. Not for us. Because it can in no way justify aggression.

In all your public speeches over the years, you have emphasized that Russia rarely grants refugee status. Why does Russia have such a policy toward refugees?

Yes, we have only 277 people who have received refugee status during the entire history of the Russian state. Moreover, some are stuck in that status – for example, Afghans, who should have received Russian citizenship a long time ago – they grew up here, got an education and speak Russian, like us.

In fact, the question should be: why is there no clear policy in the area of migration? Our bureaucrat, until he is told to do something, will stonewall. He has it in his head that if he does something for someone, he is taking something away from the state.
And we endlessly hear this idiotic statement: We are safeguarding the interests of the state. What are they safeguarding if it is not the interests of people?
The law is not enough for them – they need clear instructions. You know, one judge, when I told her, “you just don’t know the law,” answered me: “Sure, if I was told to follow the law, you would see how well I know it!”

A judge?!

Yes. A judge needs instructions.

So, why has there been no migration policy for so many years? Why didn’t one take shape under Yeltsin, or under Putin, or under Medvedev?

It did not because no one needs it, there is no demand for it. Under Medvedev, there was a migration policy concept, it was developed for a very long time, for four years. In this concept, there were whole phrases that we had done – it was nice to see. It was serious work done by highly qualified experts together with various agencies. As soon as Medvedev left as a locum, when he stopped keeping the presidential seat warm for Putin, that’s it, our work was simply thrown out.

And clearly, there will not be many more officially recognized refugees in Russia as the war progresses…

It must be acknowledged: Ukrainian refugees are still in a privileged position. It is a political process. They are offered a fast-track for Russian citizenship, they can get some benefits, the state at least tries to take care of them. But [to take care of] the rest – not at all.

In fact, the law does not even provide a monthly allowance for refugees. Really, refugee status is legalization. The right to work. And we have been trying to get that right for a long time…

Still, employers are very often unaware of this right. I am also a small-time employer. But as soon as we hire a foreign citizen, our accountant gets very nervous, because we must immediately warn all [state] funds that we have hired a foreigner. If we do not do it right away, there are huge fines.
I know people in the regions who have been punished for granting more refugee statuses than usual. The prosecutor’s office immediately went to check whether there was any corruption.
At the same time, I have never heard of anyone being punished for not granting refugee status.

On the site of Civic Assistance Committee, there is your quote that any person can lose their homeland at any time and that Einstein was a refugee and who was not.

By the way, Ludmila Alekseeva, our human rights activist [founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group], was also a refugee. Putin went to her home to congratulate her on her birthday, with his own bottle, because he would not drink from her bottle. When he was asked to drink champagne, he said: “No, no, no, I have my own bottle.” She was also a refugee at one point – from the Soviet Union to the US.

Even now, more people are fleeing from than coming to Russia. You recently spoke in Montenegro at the foundation Pristanishte, where victims of the war in Ukraine come – Ukrainians, Russians and Belarusians. Could Civic Assistance also help Russian citizens fleeing Russia?

The mandate of our organization includes assistance to foreign citizens, refugees, migrants, stateless persons and internally displaced persons. We helped during the Chechen wars, and now we help people who moved out of Chechnya. At first it was a stream of Russians, then it became mixed. That is to say, we also help our citizens, it is in our mandate. But besides that, in some cases we can also help people of other categories who are in a critical situation. I am speaking for an organization, but it is my personal work. I come home from work and quite often devote several hours, sometimes until the morning, to [writing] letters of support for our citizens applying for asylum abroad.

Not so long ago, we had such a case when people who work with the LGBT community contacted me. There was a man from Central Asia – I won’t say from which republic; unfortunately, homophobia is very widespread in many former Soviet republics. He applied for asylum in Russia. Well, we now have homophobia codified here, so it was completely pointless. We managed to send him to France. And there the organization OFPRA, where the process for people seeking asylum in France always begins, turned him down. We wrote several letters there. And I was very pleased to hear that a court in Nancy ordered OFPRA to grant asylum to this man.

We sometimes get the court to reverse denials, but usually our courts redirect the cases for new trials. And we, probably for the first time [that Civic Assistance has been around], had two cases when the court decided to oblige the migration service to grant refugee status to a person. And here we won for our former fellow Soviet citizen, and it was nice.

I write a lot of letters of support. I am now on letter 1362. Mostly it is people from the Caucasus, but not only them. Our peaceful Jehovah’s Witnesses, persecuted for nothing. There are several Muslim organizations that are also called “terrorist” and “extremist” in name only. In my opinion, it is just a label, but it is still enough to persecute them.

Civic Assistance has also been labeled a foreign agent…
I want to get an answer in court. Who am I an agent of? Which country? What have I done? Why am I under foreign influence?
Ukrainian refugees in Russia. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are 1.2 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia (as of July 2023). Source: Yandex
I went for an appointment with a psychologist who concluded that I was a very difficult person to influence.

And this trial is still ahead of you?

Yes. For some reason I was denied alternative jurisdiction. I wanted to go to court not where the Ministry of Justice is located, but where I live – I have the right. They denied me: “No, go to court where everyone goes.” Now we are suing the Ministry of Justice over alternative jurisdiction. So, it could take a long time.

Your memoirs in the project dedicated to the sixtieth anniversary of Stalin’s death made a great impression on me at one point. You managed to glimpse mature Stalinism as a schoolgirl, so you remember this time well. Do you think it is fair to draw parallels between the present time and 1937?

Of course, there is no Gulag as there was then. Imagine, we are talking right now, but was it possible in Stalin’s time? People were afraid to say a word at home. No, of course it is not like that now. Still, we have the same campaigns against anything. For example, against drugs.

I’m not for drugs at all, but I just know that when the fight against drugs begins, it means that the plan will get handed down and there will be a wave of falsified cases. When the fight against pedophilia begins – you do not think that I am for pedophilia – we know that anyone can become a pedophile. And it is so with everything. And when the fight against terrorism begins and the falsified cases of terrorism [begin], it is absolutely monstrous, because the [prison] terms are huge, and the evidence is obtained very crudely.

It seems to me that you should now have new people to take care of – those fleeing from the border areas or regions [of Russia] being shelled by Ukraine. Maybe such an avalanche as it was in Chechnya at one time?

There is no such avalanche, but there are already people who have contacted us and asked for help. They are not in Moscow, but we helped them: we sent them shoes and clothes. They said thank you.

Do you foresee an increase in such appeals, as was the case during the Chechen wars?

It depends on how events unfold. But it is surprising when people quite sincerely say: “Why are we getting hit? What do we have to do with it?” Do you understand? There is a reason. We are citizens of Russia and are responsible for what our leadership does, whether you like it or not. If you are a citizen, you are responsible for your country. I’m not saying guilt. Guilt is a legal concept that a court uses: guilt and innocence. Here everyone is responsible for himself, and for young children too. But civic responsibility is a must. Only it’s the very citizens who feel this responsibility that are condemned and labeled enemies.
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